According to a 2018 study conducted by Cigna, a health insurance company, roughly half of all Americans report that they at least sometimes feel alone and that they lack meaningful social interactions. One in five Americans says that they “rarely or never feel close to people.” This loneliness epidemic has only been growing in recent years, and adults ages 18-22 are the loneliest of us all. These feelings of isolation can have a dramatic effect on a person’s health, particularly their mental health. That’s why a team of researchers from Japan have developed a kind of disembodied robotic hand that helps people simulate the feeling of going on a stroll hand-in-hand with a partner.
It’s not surprising that this robot was created in Japan, because the Japanese have been contending with growing social isolation for several decades now. In 1975, for example, about 20 percent of Japanese women ages 25-29 were unwed. Today, that number has skyrocketed to more than 60 percent. Though not as dramatic, similar changes have been reported across all demographics. Japan even has a name, hikikomori, for people that live completely as social hermits. A government study found 541,000 hikikomori, which equates to more than 1.5 percent of the total population. A number of products and services exist to cater to the lonely people of Japan and the rest of the world, and this robotic hand is hardly the most peculiar of them.
This is not a humanoid robot and it doesn’t appear that it was intended to be sexual in any way. It’s just a hand that a person can hold as they walk along in order to feel like there is a loved one walking with them. The hand has a rigid internal skeleton surrounded by a rubber-like material that feels like skin. When you squeeze the hand, it squeezes back. A heating element inside keeps the hand warm and lifelike. It even has the ability to sweat through pores in the skin to increase the realism. An accompanying smartphone app adds to the experience by playing the sounds of your robotic companion’s breathing, footsteps, and rustling clothes. We focus on technology here — not psychology — so we can’t say whether something like this would actually benefit people, but at least someone is trying to solve the problem of loneliness.